One very early morning in Atlanta a few years ago, I stood in an airport security line with hundreds of fellow travelers in identical desert camouflage. We had arrived together from Kuwait, having left the front lines in Iraq or Afghanistan mere days before.
Approaching the familiar stacks of plastic tubs, conveyer belts and metal detectors, we formed a quiet and orderly society unto ourselves, separated by glass partitions from the jockeying maelstrom of civilian travelers churning through the rest of the airport. We stood unified in dress, bearing, and deeply lived common experience.
And then, one by one, we passed through security and vanished, alone, into the crowds.
On that connecting flight home—and in the years since—each of us wondered how our experience at war in Iraq would define our lives after the military. Would our experiences forever isolate us from the rest of our generation? What lessons could we share with our friends and neighbors? Would they listen?
Every soldier’s war is in some sense unique, as is the lasting impact war has on each of us. Yet, I believe that every one of us returned with a deeply personal stake in the success of American democracy. Each of us driven by the sacrifices we witnessed, the indelible memory of the young men and women we saw lay down absolutely everything with our flag sewn onto their sleeves. They believed. We must be worthy of that belief. So too must our nation.
It’s no surprise that so many of us have been drawn to engage, in one form or another, in the public business of the country. As we do, a growing community of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans is finding a home at the Truman National Security Project.
The Truman Project is in many ways itself a product of the Iraq war.
Deeply disturbed by the Bush Administration’s foundering national-security policy, a group of young leaders created Truman in 2004 to call for a 21st-Century version of the grand strategy that had made America a world leader and global inspiration in the latter half of the 20th. Their approach came down to a simple set of time-tested, strong liberal internationalist principles: empower America’s friends in the world, isolate our enemies, maintain a strong military force, use that force as a last resort if equally-robust civilian tools fail, and above all, stay true to America’s founding values and moral foundation.
How to realize their vision?
Truman’s early leaders recognized that the answer, above all, was people. They gathered carefully-chosen young policy and political leaders from across the country through leadership development programs— providing training, a community and support. Gradually, in small numbers at first, like-minded Iraq veterans began to take notice and join up.
By 2009, when two fellow former Army officers brought me into Truman, veteran membership and the organization itself had both reached a tipping point. I was amazed when I showed up for my orientation weekend as a new Truman Fellow. Over sandwiches that first afternoon, I met civilians who had shaped White House policy and run for Congress, caught up with a pair of fellow paratroopers I hadn’t seen since Kandahar, and traded Baghdad stories with a group of journalists, diplomats and aid workers. All of them were transparently, enthusiastically driven by service. It felt like coming home.
Today, Truman is a top-flight leadership development organization that supports its remarkable community with a staff of nearly forty professionals, from policy and training to communications and advocacy. A recent partnership with the Center for National Policy, a long-standing Washington think tank, adds yet more policy heft to the mix.
Truman’s community today is over one-third post-9/11 veterans. Veterans have shaped Truman, and Truman has shaped us. What began as an organization of high-minded young policy thinkers has grown more pragmatic and more inclusive, drawing recruits from the results-oriented military community in addition to Ivy-League graduate schools. Meanwhile, my fellow veterans and I have discovered that however intense our own experience of this decade of conflict has been, we have as much to learn from our civilian peers as we have to teach. They have served in their own ways, often with experiences as intense and harrowing as our own.
We have also discovered something larger. The veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are not, as so many of us have privately feared, an island apart. We are not destined to walk alongside the rest of our generation at a distance, separated from them forever by the chasm of our experience and understanding.
There are places where we can find a larger home, and a common purpose.
A former U.S. Army officer, Michael Breen served in Iraq with 1-6 Infantry, 1st Armored Division, and in Afghanistan with D Battery, 173rd Airborne Brigade. Currently, he is the executive director of the Truman National Security Project and Center for National Policy.